By Eric Nusbaum (text) and Craig Robinson (art)
Every year, the best winter league baseball teams from Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Mexico meet in a round robin tournament called the Serie del Caribe, or Caribbean Series. The Serie is part high-level tournament and part celebration of Latin American baseball. This year, the event is being held in Hermosillo, Mexico, a city of about 700,000 people located just three hours from the Arizona border.
Craig Robinson and Eric Nusbaum will be on the scene for Sports on Earth, strolling the concourse at the brand new Estadio Sonora to report on important subjects such as bacon-wrapped hot dogs, bootleg merchandising and, of course, the action on the field.
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HERMOSILLO, Mexico -- Craig and I live in Mexico City, which is about a thousand miles away from Hermosillo, Sonora. Mexico City is also a long ways away culturally. For one, Mexico City is a massive, pulsating metropolis, and Hermosillo still has the air of a pueblo. For another, baseball is not particularly popular in the capital, where soccer is king, queen, prince, princess, duke and duchess of the sports. The friends we told about our trip -- even friends who could lecture you for three hours about Chivas de Guadalajara's recent dismissal of Dutch soccer legend Johan Cruyff as a special advisor -- were often benignly unaware that the Serie del Caribe existed, much less that it was being played in Mexico. So when we got to the airport and saw a pair of men in bright Venezuela jackets standing around near our gate, we felt like we had already arrived in a new place.
When we landed in Hermosillo, the excitement only increased. Giant billboards announced the Serie del Caribe, and every third person seemed to be wearing a baseball jersey or cap. Cars had Dodgers and Yankees and even Montreal Expos window decals. Sonora loved baseball, and the evidence was everywhere. Of all the international teams, the Venezuelan contingent was by far the most visible -- waving giant flags inside the stadium, sitting at long tables in carne asada restaurants and wandering in gentle packs around the historic center.
We finally caught up with the two jacket-wearers from the airport behind the Venezuela dugout during their victory over Puerto Rico on Sunday afternoon. They were two brothers, Andres and Victor, and this was their third consecutive Serie del Caribe. (Sitting in front of them was an old man who had been to 17 in a row and would soon be heading to San Francisco for the World Baseball Classic).
The brothers were from Valencia, an industrial city of about two million people, and the hometown of the Navegantes de Magellanes, who were playing in their first Serie since 2002. They beamed about Navegantes manager Luis Sojo, and danced along with the team's mascot, Capy, a parrot in a pirate's costume who stubbornly refused to get down from the top of the dugout when an usher asked him nicely. "The ambiance is great," said Andres, "The truth is that the people are likable here, they're excellent people, very cordial, and the security is first class."
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This is not normally a statement you can make about ballparks, but Estadio Sonora was designed to look like a volcano. The architects were thinking about desert landscapes when they designed the stadium as the centerpiece of what is intended to be a giant commercial-residential-beisbolista complex west of Hermosillo, a city growing outwardly (but never vertically) into the seemingly endless Sonoran desert. But right now, there is no complex. There is just a long road leading out through sagebrush and dirt toward the brand new ballpark.
The result is that at night, when Mexico is playing, the stadium feels a bit like a party at the end of the world. You can see the city lights in the distance and the low jagged silhouettes of mountains beyond them, but real life feels far away. The speakers are turned all the way up. The 20,000 fans are cranked up too.
After a few hours you begin to feel like Estadio Sonora is utopian world where baseball is literally the only thing that matters; not a sport so much as a natural process, like the slow erosion of a mountain into a pitcher's mound. The field sits in a mild crater below the level of the parking lot -- somewhat reminiscent of Chavez Ravine -- and the outside of the structure slopes up gradually behind the outfield bleachers, which are lined on the outside with sagebrush planters. The roof is meant to evoke a mountain range. There is a massive stage just outside the stadium on a concourse behind the first base line. Fans line up for an hour just to get into the official store. There are at least six different mascots roaming around, all with a legitimate reasons to be here.
In other words, Estadio Sonora has the chance to be a special place for a long time -- if not a particularly Caribbean one.
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Craig Robinson is the proprietor of FlipFlopFlyBall.com, a baseball infographics maven, and can be followed on Twitter @flipflopflying. Eric Nusbaum lives in Mexico City. His writing has appeared in Slate, Deadspin, The Daily Beast and The Best American Sports Writing. He is a staffer at The Classical. You can reach him @ericnus